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There is only one Messiah, so unique it never needed a definite article. Handel, on the title page, called it ‘an oratorio’ and the Dublin opening night in April 1742 was billed as ‘an entertainment’, though that was not the composer’s intention.
Written in 24 days, it played to a packed house of 700. ‘How zealous they are in Ireland for Oratorios,’ wrote Handel to his librettist Charles Jennens, giving the proceeds of these first performances to three local charities. After the London premiere in March 1743 he donated all future income to the Foundling Hospital school that an enlightened sea captain, Thomas Coram, was building for abandoned children near Grays Inn. Messiah, said its composer, was intended for the greater good. ‘I shall be sorry if I only entertained them,’ he told a first-night enthusiast. ‘I wish to make them better.’
No work of music has conquered the English-speaking world with such force, its King Jamesian cadences enunciated by baritones in cavernous town halls, its melodies whistled by milkmen on their rounds and coalminers in the pit-shaft. Communities in the north of England, and some in North America, hinge their social life on year-round rehearsals and a climactic Messiah at Easter or Christmas. It is a work that joins town and country, Catholics and Nonconformists, musicians and amateurs, landlord and tenant in a single act of performance. Messiah, in its unifying way, has saved England from the worst excesses of class war.
The tradition survives, but with difficulty. This year, on Easter Day, ITV’s South Bank Show will document its struggle in multicultural Yorkshire where a vaulted church has become a mosque and a gay chorus splits over whether it is politically correct to sing religious verses. Mathew Tucker’s film is both moving and disturbing, capturing an ethos as it fades while confirming that Messiah, of all cultural edifices, still stands at the centre of the search for an evanescent Englishness, the elusive bond of national identity.
Much else about the work is becoming more diffuse. Handel, never daring to believe that any work of his would enjoy more than one short run, was careless with original parts and early publications. ‘It is extremely doubtful whether any other great musical work exists the text of which is in even approximately so corrupt a condition as that of Messiah,’ wrote Ebenezer Prout in the introduction to a clean-up edition in 1902. Needless to say, Prout added as many new errors as he eliminated old ones and compounded them by titling the work ‘The Messiah’, as if his version was to be definitive.
No fewer than five archival recordings are being issued this month on the Warner label, ranging from Ton Koopman’s austerity chorus of 16 voices to Yehudi Menuhin’s romantic wave over the state choir of Lithuania. Raymond Leppard conducts an all-English cast; Nikolaus Harnoncourt gets hiccupy rhythms from Swedish singers.
The most perverse of these attempts is a German-language Messiah prepared by Mozart, no less, in which Comfort Ye, My People loses a quintessential syllable when declaimed as Mein Volk, blunting Handel’s pen-point to an ink-blot. Meddling with Messiah was a popular sport in 19th century London, where performances grew larger and larger until Crystal Palace set a record on the 1885 bicentenary of Handel’s birth with a choir of 4,000, orchestra of 500 and 87,769 paying customers.
Handel for the masses remained the dominant style until the 1960s when period instruments required smaller choirs and imperial pomp was replaced with much puffing on handmade horns. In the search for a true Messiah, beauty was often sacrificed for a disputable authenticity and historical context became one-sided.
On April 14, on the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, BBC Radio 3 will relay a baroque Messiah from Westminster Abbey, where Handel is buried. Historically apt in a limited, external aspect, it ignores Handel’s declared loathing for the Abbey’s clerical establishment. He would slam the door on bishops who came to advise him on texts for Coronation hymns and used his own Bible for Messiah, taking verses from Isaiah, Psalms and the Gospels, to the despair of his librettist. ‘This Hallelujah, grand as it is, comes in very nonsensically, having no manner of relation to what goes before,’ grumbled Jennens. Handel quickly got rid of him.
When Messiah reached London, King George II rose to his feet at the Hallelujah chorus and the rest of the house stood to attention. No-one knows why the King got up, whether in homage to Handel or because he though the oratorio was over, or perhaps he was troubled by gout. Such is the strength of tradition that audiences in London – but nowhere else – stand for Hallelujah to this day.
Accretions such as these cling to Messiah like barnacles to a ghost ship, and still the work sails on. Much of Handel’s autograph score can be studied at the British Library and a full manuscript score and set of parts survive at the Thomas Coram Foundation. No musician in London has the excuse of ignorance.
Yet most performances I have heard have been a mixed blessing. The quest for Messiah is a lifelong frustration. In concert or on record, the choice is between big-band, modern chamber orchestra or period instruments and none has all the answers. One treasured California recording from 1991, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, broke the mould of maestro power by presenting all of Handel’s known variants and inviting listeners to select tracks and make your own Messiah. That, it strikes me, is the way to go.
One night 35 years ago, I ran up to the gods in the Royal Albert Hall clutching a Marylebone Public Library score and sang my lungs out in Messiah-from-Scratch, an attempt by academics, musicians and enthusiasts to reclaim Handel for the people. Initiated by the dormitory warden of Imperial College across the road, it had Sir David Willcocks as conductor and an orchestra of professionals and amateurs, some of whom had made their instruments in the garage the week before. I was probably not the only singer than night to lose his place several times but the exhilaration that filled the hall was intoxicating. We had brought Messiah to life, all by ourselves.
The Messiah from Scratch concept of annual get-togethers in a great singalong has since spread to other continents, culminating in the work’s first performance in the Forbidden City of Beijing, three years ago, and another in the Temple of Ramses on the Nile. The next Scratch Messiah (www.trbc.co.uk) is at the Royal Albert Hall on November 15. Start practising now, and I'll see you in the gods.
Messiahs to remember:
1 Joan Sutherland (Decca) Early performance with Sir Adrian Boult, mushy diction but what a voice.
2 James Bowman (EMI) The counter-tenor option, in a cleverly crafted performance with Sir David Willcocks
3 Isobel Baillie (Dutton) ‘Never sing louder than lovely’, on a Huddersfield traditional blast with Sir Malcolm Sargent
4 Bryn Terfel, Joan Rodgers, Philip Langridge, Christopher Robson (Chandos) Luxury casting by Richard Hickox
5 Lorraine Hunt (Harmonia Mundi) As a very young contralto in McGegan’s 1991 mouldbreaker.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]